Tag Archives: interpretation

Viewing the Truth Through a Dirty Window

Truth is simple, it has no clothes, no neat little box to contain it.

But we cannot grasp the something that has no box. We cannot perceive truth without clothing.

So Truth dresses up for us, in a story, in sage advice, in a blueprint of the cosmos—in clothes woven from the fabric of truth itself.

And then, before we can imagine that we have grasped Truth, it switches clothes. It tells us another story—entirely at odds with the first. It tells us new advice—to go in a different direction. It provides another model of how things are—in which each thing has changed its place.

The fool is confused. He exclaims, “Truth has lied!”

The wise person sees within and finds harmony between all the stories, all the advice, every model we are told.

For the Torah is a simple, pure light, a truth no box can contain.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Raw Truth”
Based on the Letters and Talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Depending on our philosophical or theological orientation, we like to think we have a pretty good grasp of “the truth.” This includes the truth of who we are as human beings and, if we’re religious, the truth about the nature of God, Creation, and everything.

But as Rabbi Freeman points out, human beings cannot apprehend “raw truth”. If we could, if we could see truth the way we see the color “red” or hear a particular musical note, maybe we would all perceive “truth” (more or less) in the same way. Humanity wouldn’t be so conflicted. We would all “know truth”.

But we aren’t there, not yet. We don’t perceive raw truth anymore than we can see X-rays with the unaided eye.

So we “clothe” truth with interpretation and tradition. A number of recent conversations have re-enforced the fact (as opposed to truth) that all human beings, and particularly human beings who believe the Bible is the source of truth, are oriented by specific traditional methods of interpretation to believe the Bible says certain things. The problem comes in when we encounter people who have different traditions that tell them different things about the Bible than what our traditions tell us.

While I agree that there is probably a supernal Torah in Heaven that no box can contain, in order to “package” the Torah, or for that matter, the entire Bible in order to deliver it to humanity, it gets put in a box. It has to be clothed. It is a book written (originally) in several languages over thousands of years. The completed “product” is now many thousands of years old and has been translated into innumerable languages. Just in English, there are hundreds if not thousands of translations of the Bible.

And over those thousands of years, both in Christianity (in all its forms) and in Judaism (in all its forms), many traditions have sprung up to tell many different variant religious populations what the Bible is saying. When a tradition persists long enough, it ceases to be perceived as a tradition and it is commonly understood to be the truth…

…whether it is from God’s point of view or not.

suitThey say “the clothes don’t make the man” and “never judge a book by its cover,” but quite frankly, we have no other way of understanding the Bible. We can’t access its “raw truth” and so we have interpretation by tradition. This is stated rather plainly in (especially) Orthodox Judaism. The local Chabad Rabbi told my wife that the Torah can only be understood through tradition. My experiences studying in various churches over the years tells me that Christians interpret the Bible based on traditions too. We just don’t talk about it. We like to think we can read the plain meaning of the text, especially in English, and know just what it is saying. However, the reality of the situation is that we understand, for instance, the letters of the Apostle Paul based on the traditional interpretation of those letters, not necessarily what Paul was actually trying to communicate.

“Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.”

-Dr. Leo Buscaglia

I’ve been told I’m a competent writer, talented, occasionally brilliant. I guess I better be since it’s my “day job”. It’s also a joy for me to write. I really get a lot of pleasure crafting a message in text. I usually enjoy talking about what I write, but periodically the joy gets sucked right out of the experience when all people seem to want to do is argue about what I write.

The point of my writing isn’t for me to tell you what the truth is necessarily. I write this blog to chronicle my process in the pursuit of truth. If you read all of my blog posts chronologically, I would hope you’d see a development or evolution in my comprehension of the Bible from a particular point of view (which may not be your point of view). It’s the progression of my traditional interpretive matrix. I’m tailoring the clothing in which to dress the truth of the Bible.

You probably dress the Bible in different clothing and then we argue about what sort of suit “truth” is dressed in this morning. The “Emperor” always wears clothes, and our debate is only over which sort of clothing he’s put on (or rather, what we’ve put on him).

Only God sees the Emperor without clothes.

They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord…

Jeremiah 31:34 (NASB)

We aren’t there yet. This is a prophesy about the coming Messianic age. From my point of view, Yeshua (Jesus) initiated the very beginning of this age into our world, but it will not reach fruition until his return when each of us will have such a filling of the Spirit of God, that we will apprehend Hashem in a manner greater than the prophets of old. We will literally “know God”. We will see the truth unclothed, the raw truth…

…but only then.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

This is how we see the truth right now, just as a dim reflection, a faint image, hardly perceptible, open to interpretation as to what is really being viewed. Paul knew this truth and preserved it for us but we don’t believe him. We don’t want to believe him, because believing we can know the truth in absolute terms now gives us emotional security. We don’t like a world that is suspended in dynamic tension between seemingly inconsistent and opposing thoughts, beliefs, and faiths. It’s unsettling.

But like it or not, that’s where we are. I’m sure I’ve got a lot of things wrong. I don’t always answer the questions posed to me because I don’t always have even an opinion on the answers. I’m not “the Bible Answer Man.” I don’t always know.

I wrote a completely different “morning meditation” that I had planned to publish today at the usual time (4 a.m. Mountain Time), but I pulled it out of the queue because it was more of the same and I anticipated more of the same comments and responses.

Who wants more of that?

MirrorI used to actually learn a lot from the comments and the insights of the people conversing with me and each other, but now I’m not sure I’m learning so much. Now I feel like we’re just going around and around in circles and the expectation is that I must change my mind and either think and believe like a more traditional Christian, or think and believe like how an Orthodox Jew views a Noahide.

But I’m not those types of people and that’s not how I experience the Bible’s “clothing,” so to speak.

I also feel like there might not always be an interest in me and what I think but rather, that my blog is being used as a pulpit for someone else’s idea, as a platform to convince my readers to take on a different theological point of view. Certainly some people reading my blog could be undecided about Christianity or Judaism. Did I create this blog to promote viewpoints I don’t endorse?

There’s a fine line as to just how much debate and disagreement to tolerate for the sake of learning. How much of it should I allow and where’s the cut off line? How “fair” should I be before exercising my administrative control as the blog owner? I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been pretty liberal in my policy on comments compared to some others. I rarely edit or delete comments (although I did delete a comment just yesterday).

You don’t have to agree with me and I don’t have to agree with you. That doesn’t make any of us either right or wrong. It just means we’re attempting to discuss what clothes the Emperor might be wearing today. It’s like viewing the truth through a dirty window. None of us see it very well. The problem is when we believe we see truth all too clearly.

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Dealing with the Heresy Hunters

Saul understood the disciples of Yeshua as a dangerous sect of Judaism that needed to be silenced before it spread any further. In Saul’s day Judaism contained a variety of sectarian movements. The word “sect” translates the Greek word “hairesis.” It is the same word for “choice,” or “opinion.” Over time, as Christianity battled against the deviant hairesis of Gnosticism, the meaning of the word evolved into the new concept of “heresy.” In the days of the apostles, however, the word primarily referred to a faction of thought and practice within a larger group. For example, the book of Acts refers to the “sect of the Sadducees” (Acts 5:17) and the “sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5), which was “the strictest sect of [the Jews’] religion” (Acts 26:5 NASB). It also refers to the disciples of Yeshua as the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus used the word hairesis to describe “schools of thought” within the Jewish people: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. In Josephus’ writings the word hairesis only means a faction within the broader religion of Judaism. It does not imply heresy.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
from “Damascus Road Encounter,” pp.15-16
Messiah Magazine issue 8, Winter 2015/5775

I find I can’t read Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles” anymore without thinking about the church I used to attend and the reasons I left. The head Pastor during the two years I attended, was working his way through the Book of Acts in his sermon series, preaching on it verse by verse.

During the first year I was at this church, I was studying Lancaster’s Torah Club Volume 6: “Chronicles of the Apostles,” which is a detailed analysis of Acts from a Messianic Jewish point of view (based on the theology and doctrine espoused by First Fruits of Zion). Between Pastor’s weekly sermons and my Torah Club studies, I became very familiar with Acts, perhaps more so than any other single book in the Bible. So now, when I read Acts, I think both of Pastor’s sermons and of Lancaster’s teachings.

FFOZ’s Messiah Magazine is a less “scholarly” publication compared to Messiah Journal and is written, in my opinion, for people with a more traditional Christian mindset who are interested in what I call “Messianic Judaism 101.”

That’s not a bad thing. When encountering Messianic Judaism for the first time, it’s helpful to have an elementary point of entry that speaks to someone not familiar with that perspective. I guess I’ve been studying too long to be challenged by entry-level material.

But I found myself wishing this (Sunday) morning that I could share Lancaster’s article with the folks at the Sunday School class I used to attend. It’s a vain hope. For two years, I tried to make a positive impression on the class regarding Messianic Jewish thought and perspective on the Bible, and while some people found some of what I said compelling, ultimately, for two years, I was spinning my wheels. Paradigms are not easily shifted, and sometimes they are so cemented into place, that it becomes all but impossible (at least for human beings) to shift them perceptibly. Any doctrine outside of what is taught by the local church is considered heresy.

Which brings me to the quote from Lancaster’s article.

We experience now, as did the Jewish people in the days of Saul/Paul, a number of different “sects,” both within Christianity and Judaism. If we take all this within the context of the original meaning of the word “hairesis,” then we can consider the different denominations of Christianity and the different branches of Judaism as different factions, or schools of thought and practice, within their broader respective religions.

But where does that leave modern Messianic Judaism and her (somewhat) parallel sister movement Hebrew Roots? Can we consider them two different “sects,” and valid “schools of thought and practice” within a larger religious context?

I’ve been following a number of different blogs over the past week or so and monitoring a series of “differences of opinion” (to put it mildly in some cases) that would seem to belie that thought.

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

For instance, on Derek Leman’s Messianic Jewish Musings, there is a lively debate between Messianic Jews (and Gentiles) and an Orthodox Jewish person about the validity of Christianity as a religion, including Messianic Judaism, which this fellow (Hi, Gene) believes to be a subset of Christianity rather than a “school of thought” within Judaism.

Pete Rambo issued a rather provocative challenge on his blog by “offering a $10,000 reward to the person who can prove unequivocally, from Scripture alone, that God changed the Sabbath day from Saturday, the seventh day, to Sunday the first day.” Naturally, a “spirited debate” ensued, although there only seems to be one person attempting to “collect the reward.”

And then, on Peter Vest’s blog, he proposes the interesting idea that the later Rabbis of the Talmud rejected what Peter believes was the “One Law” teachings of the Second Temple era Rabbis. There’s no particular argument going on in the comments section of that blog (yet), but it nevertheless presents another variant opinion on what the Bible teaches us about Jewish and Gentile interactions in the first-century Jewish “stream of thought” of “the Way.”

I must say that adherents to these various “sects,” in these blog discussions, can express quite a bit of “passion” in defending their particular opinions, but sometimes it (seemingly) goes beyond that.

I haven’t watched the YouTube video yet (and I probably never will), but according to Peter on his blog, a couple of gentlemen in some sort of One Law radio talk show outright said that Peter was a “liar” relative to his statements about Judaism and the validity of the Oral Torah.

Now I can’t state strongly enough that I haven’t watched the video and so I don’t directly know what was or wasn’t said. I do know that it’s not unheard of to misinterpret someone’s opinion of you, especially if that opinion is at all critical. I don’t know what the people Peter mentions said or didn’t say, so what I’m writing here isn’t a matter of taking sides or calling anyone out.

However, if we, for the moment, accept Peter’s allegations at face value, then we have encountered a problem. All of us in our various “sects” of Christianity, Judaism, or whatever, actually have the same core goal: drawing nearer to God. However, each of us within our own specific “streams of thought” imagine the details of just how to accomplish that task rather differently. And yet, in spite of the fact that we know there have been multiple differing “streams of thought and practice” about the Bible and God for well over two-thousand years, significantly predating the existence of anything called “Christianity,” we still insist that whatever religious stream in which we find ourselves is the only one with “the truth.”

Everyone else is wrong and we have a duty and obligation to go online and, by golly, prove it.

It is one thing to disagree with someone else, to believe their particular interpretation of the Bible is in error, that the person is (Heaven forbid) wrong, mislead, or even deluded. It’s another thing entirely to believe another person’s difference of opinion indicates that the individual is a willful liar. I hope that’s not what’s going on here, because it would be a sad commentary on two people who are professed disciples of Yeshua (Jesus),  but as I said, I don’t really know.

And that brings us back to Lancaster’s article and “Saul, the Heresy Hunter” (I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek).

Christian teaching emphasizes the story of the conversion of Saul the Jew, a persecutor of the early church, into Paul the Christian, as a pattern for Jewish believers to follow. Just as Saul renounced Judaism and even changed his name to Paul, so too, Jewish believers should renounce their old allegiances and embrace their new identity in Christ. A careful reading of the story of Saul’s Damascus road encounter, however, does not indicate a conversion from Judaism to Christianity, nor does it indicate a change in name from Saul to Paul.

-Lancaster, p.15

You’ll have to read Lancaster’s full article (only four pages long) to see how he defends his opinion (successfully from my point of view), but it indicates a couple of things. First, that Saul was wrong about his persecution of the Jewish members of “the Way,” and that he was rather dramatically forced to face his mistakes by an encounter with the Master of that movement, Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth. Second, we discover that (in my opinion and Lancaster’s) Christian interpretive tradition is wrong about what happened to Saul, what sort of “conversion” he underwent, and why he had two names.

Saul did undergo a radical transformation of the heart, soul, and mind. One might say that he experienced a spiritual conversion — something the Master called being “born again.” His life would never be the same. Compared with the “surpassing value of knowing Messiah Yeshua,” Saul counted all his prestigious heritage and achievements in Judaism as mere rubbish (Philippians 3:8 NASB). Yet that change in priority did not indicate a change in religious affiliation. Saul encountered the Messiah on the way to Damascus, but he did not abandon his Jewish identity or his loyalty to the Torah, the Jewish people, or Jewish practice.

-ibid, p.18

The Jewish PaulIf I said something like that in at least some churches, I would likely encounter strong and passionate counter arguments that anything “Jewish” did not survive in Paul after his Acts 9 encounter with Jesus. Nevertheless, that’s how I (and Lancaster, and many others) read the life of Paul in the Apostolic Scriptures.

So as we’ve seen, there have been multiple sects of Judaism that predated the earthly ministry of Jesus by quite a bit, and there have been multiple sects of Christianity from pretty much the point when the term was first used.

What do we do about that, especially in the volatile environment of the religious blogosphere?

View people you are likely to quarrel with as your partners in personal growth. They are likely to make you more aware of your vulnerabilities, limitations, and mistakes. Don’t let this get you down. Rather, let it serve as your coach. You now have more awareness of what you need to strengthen, fix, and keep on developing.

(from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: Harmony with Others, p.36, http://www.artscroll.com)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
from Daily Lift #236: “My Partner in Personal Growth”
Aish.com

If you’re religious in any sense of the word (I know that some Christians say their faith is a “relationship, not a religion” but go with me on this one) then other people are going to disagree with you. Get used to it. If you are going to discuss your religious beliefs on a blog and allow others to comment on your blog, people will comment and some will disagree with you. Others will write their own blog posts disagreeing with you, sometimes in the most caustic and “unChristian” like manner.

If we are to believe what Rabbi Pliskin says, all of our opponents are our partners in personal growth. Without them, we might never discover weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and limitations in our own character as well as our knowledge. They force us to constantly stretch ourselves so that we will be more aware of our strengths and deficits tomorrow than we are today. As one motivational statement I’ve seen at my gym says, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4 (NASB)

It seems that Rav Shaul (otherwise known as Paul the Apostle) and Rabbi Pliskin agree on something.

Interpretation as Tradition

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.

-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:3
quoted from Chabad.org

Back to Stern’s statement: replacing “tradition” with “interpretation” we could rewrite it to say: “There could never have been a time when interpretation of some sort was not a necessary adjunct to the written Torah.” Tradition claims legitimacy by appealing to the past for its authority, and is independent of scriptural anchoring; interpretation does not look to the past for legitimacy, but rather seeks an anchoring in the text itself. One dispute among the rabbis is whether certain halakhot were actually derived exegetically or whether they were an independent revelation.

-Rob Vanhoff
from his December 31, 2014 at 4:03 pm comment on his blog post Is there a core “Oral Torah” written in response to Peter Vest’s blog post Question for Rob Vanhoff

I’m dabbling into somewhat dangerous waters by invoking commentary written by Rob Vanhoff of TorahResource.com since typically, my theological orientation and Mr. Vanhoff’s (and his employer Tim Hegg) are not entirely compatible (I say that as an understatement).

But in reading Mr. Vest’s and Mr. Vanhoff’s dialog and then commentary from the book Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics, I started to ponder the relationship between interpretation and tradition in both Christianity (which includes the Hebrew Roots movement in my opinion) and Judaism (which I believe includes Messianic Judaism).

I should note at this point that I’m not writing this to challenge either Mr. Vest or Mr. Vanhoff (or Mr. Hegg). I’m not attempting to enter into yet another “I’m right and you’re wrong” debate. I just want to point out that, from my point of view, how we interpret the Bible is based on our traditions, both within Christianity and Judaism as I’ve defined them above.

The existence of the oral tradition is alluded to in the Written Law in numerous places.

For example:

The Torah says: (Deut. 12:20) “When G-d expands your borders as He promised you, and your natural desire to eat meat asserts itself, so that you say; ‘I wish to eat meat’, you may eat as much meat as you wish… you need only slaughter your cattle and small animals… in the manner I have commanded you.” Nowhere in the Written Torah is such a manner described. So what is the manner in which we are supposed to slaughter cattle?

Though the laws of slaughtering cattle are not explained in the Written Torah, they are described in detail in the Oral Law.

The Talmud tells the story of a Gentile who went to Hillel the Elder and said to him, “I want to convert, but I want to accept only the Written Torah, and not the Oral Torah. I don’t wish to accept the words of the Rabbis. So teach me only the Written Torah, and not the Oral Torah.”

But Hillel knew that the man wanted to do the right thing. He simply didn’t understand the purpose of the Oral Torah. So he began to teach him the Aleph Bais (Hebrew alphabet). The first day, Hillel the Elder taught him the first two letters, aleph, and bais (aleph and bet, for those who speak the Sefardic dialect).

The next day, Hillel the Elder taught him the same two letters in reverse. He showed him the letter aleph, and called it “bais.” The man objected, “but yesterday you taught it the other way!”

“Well, then, you need me, a Rabbi, to teach you the Aleph Bais? So you have to trust my knowledge of the tradition of the letters. What I tell you is the Oral Tradition. You can’t read the alphabet if no one tells you what it means. And you think you don’t need the Rabbis’ knowledge of Jewish Tradition in order to understand the words of the Torah? Those are much more difficult! Without an Oral Tradition you will never be able to learn the Torah.”

So it is clear that an Oral Tradition is needed, and that one exists.

-from “The Indispensable Oral Law”
BeingJewish.com

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

-Pirkei Avot 1:1

oral lawWas there an Oral Law given to Moses by Hashem in parallel to the Written Law (Torah), and was that Oral Law passed down, generation by generation, in an absolutely unchanged manner, from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders, from the Elders to the Prophets, and then from the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly, eventually being codified and making its way to modern Judaism?

It seems like a long shot, given that even the written Torah had “gone missing” for quite some time.

When they were bringing out the money which had been brought into the house of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of the Lord given by Moses. Hilkiah responded and said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan. Then Shaphan brought the book to the king and reported further word to the king, saying, “Everything that was entrusted to your servants they are doing. They have also emptied out the money which was found in the house of the Lord, and have delivered it into the hands of the supervisors and the workmen.” Moreover, Shaphan the scribe told the king saying, “Hilkiah the priest gave me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded Hilkiah, Ahikam the son of Shaphan, Abdon the son of Micah, Shaphan the scribe, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book which has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord which is poured out on us because our fathers have not observed the word of the Lord, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

2 Chronicles 34:14-21 (NASB)

The preservation of an unchanging Oral Torah across hundreds if not thousands of years would require that God sustain the Oral Law as He has the Written Law. I suppose it would make more sense to say that Oral Law as it’s conceived of in modern Judaism is the grand compilation of traditions that have accumulated over the centuries, but were not all given originally to Moses (if any of them were).

Question:

Can you explain why laws never seem to revert back to their original form? For example, some holidays are two days outside of Israel because of the difficulty with keeping time hundreds of years ago, which has since been resolved.

Answer:

Simply put, customs have the import of law since the Torah itself recognizes them as law. That makes sense, because the basis of Torah is not the book, but the people. How do we know the Torah is true? Because the people witnessed it, accepted it and passed down the tradition. So without tradition, we have no Torah.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why Aren’t Customs Reversible?”
Chabad.org

Of course the belief that the Oral Law as it exists in Judaism today originated as a complete body of knowledge with Moses at Sinai is also a tradition and as such is considered factual, at least in Orthodox Judaism.

Now I admire the refined skill-set of a good kosher shochet, but what Dr. Stern sees as “evidence” for “oral Torah” from Deuteronomy 12:21 (כאשר צויתיך) is for me simply a pointer to what Moshe states elsewhere concerning slaughter: pour out all the blood, cover it with earth, don’t consume it, etc… I’m definitely a minimalist in this regard. Let’s keep in mind that the art of midrash (be it halakhaic or aggadic) consists first of positing a textual ‘gap’ and second of filling it!

-Vanhoff

On the other hand…

Hashem said to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the tzitzis of each corner a thread of turquoise wool. It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it and remember all the commandments of Hashem and perform them; and not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray.

Numbers 15:37-39 (Stone Edition Chumash)

tzitzitSo how do Jewish men know how to tie tzitzit (keeping in mind there’s more than one tradition on how to do so)? Who taught the Jewish people the specific method of obtaining the blue dye to color the “thread of turquoise”? There is nothing in the (written) Torah describing how this is done, so how did Moses teach the Children of Israel how to observe this mitzvah? Is it possible that Moses had conversations with Hashem that were not recorded in writing? Was literally every second of every transaction between Moses and God put down in writing?

Probably not, otherwise the Bible in written form would be too large to carry.

But that’s supposition on my part. Still, I must admit that there are more than a few commandments in Torah where there is no written instruction for how to observe them.

Does that mean the Oral Law as it’s understood today is exactly as it was or may have been given to Moses at Sinai or later during the forty years in the desert?

From a human point of view, this seems doubtful, but if an Oral Law also comes from God, then nothing is impossible.

The Bible is the most authoritative element of Judaism. But it is not the only one. Just as it had been preceded by tradition, so was it soon followed by tradition, the “Oral Law,” which strives to penetrate into the essence of the Bible’s written word. The Oral Law strives to apply the teachings of the Bible to all the events of existence; to provide religious and moral standards for all of life’s activities; and to realize the Bible’s teachings in the whole Jewish community. This tradition, which was ultimately established in the Talmud, had at first to fight for recognition; subsequently, it too became a conservative factor in Jewish religious life.

-Leo Baeck, “The Essence of Judaism,”
New York: Schocken Books, 1948
quoted in “The Bible and the Talmud,” p.17
Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics

In Judaism, tradition is what tells a Jew what the Bible means. In Christianity, as Mr. Vanhoff states, a systematic method of interpretation does the same job.

So am I saying that Jews have tradition and Christians have interpretation? Well, not exactly. I’m saying that Jews are open in stating that tradition guides their Biblical interpretation and Christians believe that they have no tradition of interpretation…

..except that’s not true.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post called Does the Church Interpret the Bible Based on Traditions. I’ll save you the trouble of reading the whole thing and give you the answer here: Yes!

In fact, I believe that every branch of Christianity, including all versions of Hebrew Roots, interpret the Bible based on some overt or covert set of traditions that transcend any “scientific” method of Biblical hermeneutics. I know I’m going to receive a significant amount of push back for making that statement. I know that many scholarly arguments can be leveled against me, showing me that Protestant Christianity and Hebrew Roots (they have more in common than you might imagine) use totally objective means by which to determine the true and factual meaning of the Biblical text.

Except if that were true, then I don’t think we’d see such dissonance between the pro-Jewish people and pro-Israel words of the Bible including the Apostolic Scriptures and the nature and function of the New Covenant, and how modern Protestant Christianity refactors the Bible to minimize or delete the role of Jews and national Israel in God’s redemptive plan for the world.

Much has been made of Martin Luther and the men of the Reformation and how they undid the abuses of the Bible by the Catholic Church, but the Reformation didn’t “reform” as much as you might think. Many traditions of the Church (Sunday worship rather than a Saturday Shabbat, the continued “gentilization” of Jesus Christ, the supersession of “the Church” in place of Israel) were maintained and survived to this very day in virtually all expressions of Christianity.

So it’s quite possible if we view Hebrew Roots as a minor “reformation” of Evangelical Christianity to believe they didn’t reform as much as you might think, including holding onto some (but not all) of the traditions of the Church, such as how to interpret certain sections of the Bible.

Interpretation of the Bible begins at translation, or so it’s said. I tend to believe that the first step in interpreting the Bible is how we already understand it based on who taught us our traditions. This is true whether you are a Baptist, an Orthodox Jew or operate in any other branch of Christianity or Judaism.

I’m always amazed at how people who have read a dictionary entry or two on “Mishnah” or “Talmud” become so quickly convinced that when they pick up the Soncino Bavli in English, they are reading the culture, worldview, and halachah of the 1st Century! Truth be told, most Messianics who are enamored with “rabbinic Judaism” have spent precious little time actually reading the rabbinic sources, even in translation. They’re willing to watch a YouTube video or two from a Cabad rabbi and think that they’ve just been educated in the finer details of rabbinic halachah and aggadah, and what is more, that their new knowledge informs “what Yeshua really thought and did.”

– from Tim Hegg’s comment on Rob Vanhoff’s aforementioned blog post

I just want to be clear that I don’t consider myself some sort of “expert” in Talmud or anything else. What I do want to emphasize is that we cannot separate our understanding of the Bible from our “religious orientation.” Sure, we can change religious orientations and thus our understanding of the Bible, but with some difficulty. I changed from a more “standard” Christian hermeneutic, to a Hebrew Roots perspective, and then finally to a viewpoint formed from various teachers within a Messianic Jewish context.

Does that make me right and everyone who disagrees with me wrong? Not at all. I have far more questions about the Bible and God than I have answers. I just want to point out that no one has raw, naked, unfiltered access to the Word of God such that they and only they know “the truth” about exactly what it says in every single detail. No Bible scholar worth his or her salt would make such a claim. That’s why Biblical research is ongoing and that’s why we study the Bible (hopefully) every day.

Coffee and BibleThis is like the African-American woman Tim Hegg describes in his comment on Vanhoff’s blog post, the one who believed that the Apostle Paul’s Bible was the King James translation. Her understanding (I have to assume based on limited information that this woman really did believe such a thing) is based on some sort of tradition she was taught and like many, most, or all religious people, tradition first became truth in her mind, and then absolute fact.

Even when we’re aware that we are guided by our traditions, that awareness isn’t going to be enough to keep us from continuing to be driven by said-traditions for the most part. Yoda may have said “You must unlearn what you have learned” (as shown in this brief YouTube video), but that’s easier said than done. Maybe Luke Skywalker could do that under the Jedi Master’s guidance, but in real life, once we learn something, we are very likely to stick with it, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Again, this isn’t a matter of one side being right and the other side being wrong. It’s a matter of all sides being guided and molded by tradition, even when we think we’re not. What we think is who we are.

What I Learned in Church Today: The Eisegesis of 1 Timothy 1:8-11

In church today, Pastor Randy preached on Deuteronomy 5 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11 but I want to preface this “meditation” by citing some of the notes from the Sunday school class, which taught on Deuteronomy 9.

What can cause us to not give God credit for our successes and blessings? Why is it important for us also to “remember and never forget” (citing Deut. 9:4-7) what God has done for us “in Christ”?

The obvious answer to that first question is “pride” and that plays into the next classroom question.

Have you or I been a source of frustration to someone in leadership responsibility over us? Give examples of our acts or omissions that make their job more difficult.

For me, the answer is “Well, yes, of course” and my examples would be most of my conversations with Pastor Randy over various theological issues, principally the issue of the continuation of the Jewish obligation to the Torah commandments.

Now I have to be very careful. Before the beginning of class, the teacher was telling me what a challenge putting together this week’s lesson was and later during class, he said that he prepares a full two-page lesson outline so we’ll have to study for several days before class and not just whip out our notes the night before.

Except I didn’t think his lesson was particularly challenging and I did complete the worksheet the day before in something under an hour.

To be fair, I have probably spent more time studying the Torah than most of my fellow students so grasping the essentials of the material seems a fairly straightforward affair, at least as my teacher presents them.

And I have to watch out for that “pride” thing. I had to keep stopping myself (my train of thought) in class and remind myself not to be so arrogant, which I’ve written about before. I thought I had successfully re-evaluated my role in church but I still find that I am struggling with some very difficult but very typical attitudes in Christianity.

One last question from Sunday school before I get started on the sermon.

In Deut. Chs. 9 and 10, God answers Moses’ prayer not to destroy the nation. He goes up for a 2nd written copy of the 10 Commandments. How easily do you and I give up on others?

As I’ve mentioned many times before, although Pastor and I don’t see eye-to-eye on very much in terms of theology and doctrine, I have a great deal of respect for him as a person, a scholar, and a Pastor. When he preaches, I usually am frantically taking notes and writing commentary and critique on the various points he makes, but this was the first time when, after he said something quite specific, I almost stood up and walked out in mid-sermon.

But let me back up a bit.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Pastor is taking several weeks to lay the foundation for a series on the Ten Commandments and his assertion that these specific commandments are universal, timeless, and apply to all Christians today. He’s lifting just the Ten Commandments out of the Torah and saying they are the only parts of the 613 Commandments that remain in force for the Church (although he has an interesting spin on the commandment to keep the Shabbat), and that the rest of the Law ended with Jesus (Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:19).

All this, I knew and it didn’t surprise me, but when he left Deuteronomy 5 and moved on to 1 Timothy 1, I was in for a surprise. I suppose I should insert the specific text for reference. Actually, it’s a little more than just verses eight through eleven.

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.

But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.

1 Timothy 1:3-11 (NASB)

Talmud StudySo the issue, as I’m reading it, was that Paul was relating to Timothy how in Ephesus some men were teaching “strange doctrines” that had to do with “myths” and “endless genealogies” and giving rise to “mere speculation”. Apparently, these guys wanted to be “teachers of the Law” but according to Paul, they didn’t know what they were talking about.

It would seem to indicate that these men weren’t Jewish since it would be fairly likely that Jewish teachers would have some idea of how to teach the relevant essentials of the Law (Torah) to newly minted Gentile disciples of the Master. I suppose the “endless genealogies” could be indicative of Judaism since we find numerous genealogies in the Torah and later, when the Apostolic Scriptures were canonized, we find that the genealogy of Jesus (Yeshua) is included and considered important in establishing his credentials as Messiah. But I hardly think that Paul would consider anything related to the Torah, including Jewish commentary on the scriptures, would qualify as “myth”. This is more reminiscent of how I have experienced, at different times over the past ten years or so, some non-Jewish teachers have rendered their interpretations of the Torah, and more than a few theories have been rather fanciful.

So what “strange doctrines” were the fellows Paul describes trying to pass off on the disciples in Ephesus?

In verse eight, Paul says that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully…” but while Pastor acknowledged the wordplay in Greek (“Law”, “lawfully”), he chose to translate the latter word as “properly”. Toward the end of his sermon, in his notes, he asked “What is the improper use of the law?”

One of the misuses, according to Pastor, is following speculations, controversies, and myths rather than “sound doctrine”. So who is engaging in these speculations, controversies and myths?

Although it would have been impossible for Paul to have meant this, Pastor is applying this “misuse of the Law” to Rabbinic Judaism with all their “man-made rules” (which most Rabbis consider the interpretation of the various mitzvot and their application across history and the differing requirements and circumstances that arise). He also cited the teachings of Seventh-Day Adventism as distracting from the doctrine that one is saved only through faith in Christ.

And then he mentioned Messianic Judaism as “speculative” and “controversial” with their proposition that a Jew can have faith in Jesus as the Messiah and still realize that the Sinai Covenant and its conditions, the statutes and laws of the Torah, remain obligatory for Jewish Jesus-believers.

I know all of the areas that Pastor and I disagree upon, but this is the first time, especially publicly, that he directly hammered on the theological and doctrinal platform which is the foundation of my understanding of the Bible.

Imagine being a Seventh-Day Adventist and listening to this part of the sermon. How would you feel? Or at different times, Pastor or others in the church have taken exception to Pentecostals, Catholics, and Mormons. Imagine being a member of one of those denominations or orientations and being a guest in Pastor’s church to listen to such sermons and teachings.

Like I said, my first impulse was to stand up and walk out. My second impulse was to wait until the sermon was over and then leave, skipping Sunday school.

I thought better of both actions and when I’m caught off guard, it’s usually a bad idea for me to go with the first thought that pops into my head.

So I’m writing about it instead.

I used the word Eisegesis in the title of this blog post, which is basically reading your theology and doctrine into the Biblical text, as opposed to Exegesis which is reading the Biblical text and allowing it to develop your theology and doctrine, and I never thought I’d say something like this about Randy.

Although we disagree on many things, I know that he’s an intelligent, well-educated and well-read, thoughtful, and honest researcher. I know, like most of us, that he comes from a particular theological tradition and that perspective colors how he reads the Bible. My perspective equally colors my interpretation of the Bible, and I don’t believe any human being can be perfectly objective, especially in the realm of religion.

However, I do believe that my theology is driven by a more straightforward view of what the Bible says and treats all of scripture as a single, unified document which doesn’t require suddenly “jumping the tracks” from one major version of God’s redemptive plan to another at Acts 2. But to equate Paul’s comments on speculations, controversies, and myths specifically to variants on religious Judaism, as well as a Christian denomination that is generally accepted by most other mainstream Christian denomination, is pure opinion and cannot be reasonably derived from the text.

rabbis-talmud-debateI know that even Christians who say they love Jewish people and Israel, draw the line at Judaism as a religion, generally expressing at least some disdain at what is considered “the traditions of men” (and remember, it wasn’t that long ago in Church history when we were burning volumes of Talmud and calling said-volumes “obscene”), but I know that the “love” many Christians say they have for the Jews, once you throw religious Judaism into the mix, has a severe limitation.

I suppose this is just my opinion, but what if when Messiah returns, the way we will be worshiping and studying will be more like a Judaism than a Christianity? After all, “ekklesia” doesn’t mean “church”. I’ve written before that the word “church” didn’t come into existence for many centuries after the Bible was canonized.

Pastor himself said assembled Israel was referred to in Biblical Hebrew as “kahal” which is (interestingly enough) translated in the Septuagint as “synagogue”. The Apostolic Scriptures use the word “ekklesia” and they all (more or less) mean a gathering of people for a specific purpose.

I think it’s a shame that all English Bibles translate the word “ekklesia” as “church” not only because it’s anachronistic (although referring to the Children of Israel in Deuteronomy 5 as “synagogue” is as well) but because it sends the message that the Jews as Jews are out of the picture and replaced by Gentile (and Jewish) Christians.

Now to his credit, Pastor spent a significant amount of time saying that all of God’s promises to the Jewish people in the Bible are true and, if they aren’t, then we (Gentile) Christians have no assurance that God’s promises to us aren’t true as well (although all of God’s covenant promises are made with the House of Judah and the House of Israel…and only His covenant with Noah involves the rest of humanity…we’re just grafted into the blessings of the New Covenant).

But how can God’s promises to Israel all still be true if virtually all the conditions of the Sinai Covenant expired when Jesus died on the cross (something God never mentioned even once when He made the Sinai Covenant)? How can God’s promise that the Aaronic priesthood is an eternal covenant (Numbers 18:7) if, as Pastor says, the Priesthood of Melchizedek replaces the Aaronic? The Prophet Ezekiel says in no uncertain terms that the sons of Zadok, who are from the sons of Levi, will be the priests in the future Temple that will be built in Messianic times (Ezekiel 40:45-46).

It would be impossible for all of the Torah precepts except for the Ten Commandments to have ended permanently “at the cross.” If that were true, the Levitical priests in Ezekiel’s Temple wouldn’t know what to do with themselves since their duties are described down to the last detail only in the Torah.

That’s also why, when the New Covenant fully emerges into our world in Messianic Days, the Torah must continue as the conditions of that covenant, even as they remain the conditions of the Sinai Covenant, which is still incumbant on the Jewish people (including Messianic Jewish people) today.

Maybe in a later blog post, I’ll insert the diagram Pastor put in his sermon notes, which map the Ten Commandments to 1 Timothy 1:9-10 and which supposedly serve as proof of Pastor’s assertion that only the Ten Commandments survive out of the full body of laws given at Sinai. It is (again, this is all my opinion) wildly speculative to somehow read this portion of 1 Timothy and believe this is what Paul was presenting, rather than the Apostle writing to address a situational problem occurring at that point of time within the ekklesia at Ephesus.

Although his comments on Messianic Judaism were the real “capper” for me, I was still astonished with him explaining that the two greatest commandments we see Jesus teaching in Matthew 22:34-40 were “proof” that Jesus said only the Ten Commandments apply in Christianity (nevermind that Jesus was still alive so the Law hadn’t been “nailed to the cross” with him yet, that he was a Torah observant Jew, and that with rare exception, all of the people he spoke with and taught were Torah observant Jews) because the Ten Commandments can be divided into those laws that relate to God and man and those laws that relate to men and other men.

And yet, all of the 613 mitzvot can be divided into those two general groups, so Matthew 22:34-40 is not a good proof text to support Pastor’s assertion.

I know Pastor is well-educated in theology and I’m just an interested amateur, but I feel like I could walk through the gaping holes he left in his presentation.

I’m sorry, I really am. I know I’m probably going off half-cocked and I’m trying really hard not to let my feeling like my tail has been stepped on overwhelm my good sense, but it just seems fantastic to me that Pastor’s read on the Ten Commandments and especially his opinion on Messianic Judaism being a controversy and even a myth isn’t a projection of Christian traditions being read back into the Bible in order to support what he considers “sound doctrine”. It’s more like a defense against the idea that God really did make permanent covenants and that His promises actually do endure just as God uttered them and had recorded in the Bible. Pastor admits that the Jewish people will always be a nation before God, but he’s missing just how they’re supposed to remain recognizably and “covenantally” Jewish.

I inserted my Sunday school class notes above in part because they included a suggestion that disagreeing with church leadership is a bad thing. Am I being disobedient and prideful by disagreeing, especially so strongly, with the Pastor’s teachings? Is this my pride talking or am I allowed to have my own theological opinions independent of what’s being taught? God did make Randy the head Pastor of this church. He has authority over everyone who chooses to attend. Who am I to argue?

I stopped referring to Randy “my Pastor” when he called me on the fact that I disagree with him on almost everything. But why is it only “sound doctrine” when it’s stuff that he teaches based on the particular model of theology to which he subscribes? More than ever, I’m convinced that the Church teaches on principles that more resemble sound tradition. What one considers “sound” simply depends on what Christian traditions are employed to interpret scripture.

ChurchI don’t want to be prideful, disobedient, and arrogant, thinking I’m right and everyone else is wrong. Believe me, I know I’ve got a lot to learn. But what am I supposed to do, especially now, when I feel like I’ve been backed into a corner?

I used to worry that I’d never make any sort of impact in this church environment but now I’m worried I am making an impact, a bad one. If this is the result of my discussions about Torah and the Jewish people with Pastor in specific and with others more generally, then what a terrible thing I’ve done.

Oh, and yes, I plan to go back to church next week if for no other reason than because Pastor said that today’s and next week’s sermons are necessary to understand the foundation he’s putting down. He’ll be speaking on Galatians 3 next week. Oy.

Addendum: Continued in The Consequences of Disagreeing.

For Now We See Through A Bible Darkly

John MacArthurWhen Jesus came, everything changed, everything changed.… He didn’t just want to clean up the people’s attitudes as they gave their sacrifices, He obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.

-Pastor John MacArthur
“Understanding the Sabbath,” September 20, 2009, posted on the Grace to You blog.
As quoted in Lois Tverberg’s blog post Test Your “Jesus Theories” in the Book of Acts

One of the folks who commented on a recent blog post of mine mentioned that Messianic Jewish/Hebrew Roots blogger Judah Himango had written a particularly illuminating article recently, based on Tverberg’s November 2013 commentary. I finished reading Judah’s write-up, suitably impressed, and clicked the link to his source material.

I really thought I was done with John MacArthur after my final series of reviews on First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) book Gifts of the Spirit. But seeing that Tverberg had quoted MacArthur on her blog, I had to find the original sermon and see the quote in context.

It didn’t make me happy.

As you can probably tell from the above-quoted paragraph, in one fell swoop, MacArthur kills the Torah, the Temple, and Judaism (if not the Jewish people) and summarily replaces them with Gentile Christianity in a lecture I could characterize as one of the more noteworthy flowers in the garden of supersessionism.

I was still going to resist writing about all of this. After all, Judah covered the issues brought up by Tverberg’s blog and expanded on them in a way that would make anything else I had to say on the subject redundant. And I’m sure most cessationists and anyone else who thinks John MacArthur is “the cat’s meow” probably believes by now that I have nothing better to do with my time than to endlessly bash MacArthur, using my blog as a blunt instrument.

I wouldn’t have even put my fingers on the keyboard over all of this if I hadn’t read the following:

In 1982:

“The Bible clearly teaches, starting in the tenth chapter of Genesis and going all the way through, that God has put differences among people on the earth to keep the earth divided.”

– Bob Jones III, defending Bob Jones University’s policy banning interracial dating/marriage. The policy was changed in 2000.

In 1823:

“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”

– Rev. Richard Furman, first president of the South Carolina State Baptist Convention.

In the 16th Century:

“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”

– Martin Luther in “Table Talk” on a heliocentric solar system.

Rachel Held EvansI took these quotes (there are plenty more where they came from) from an article called “The Bible was ‘clear’ …” by Rachel Held Evans.

Here’s part of the commentary summarizing these quotes of various religious, social, political, and scientific opinions, all based on scripture (emph. below is Evans’):

Of course, for every Christian who appealed to Scripture to oppose abolition, integration, women’s suffrage, and the acceptance of a heliocentric solar system, there were Christians who appealed to Scripture to support those things too.

But these quotes should serve as a humbling reminder that rhetorical claims to the Bible’s clarity on a subject do not automatically make it so. One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand.

We like to characterize the people in the quotes above as having used Scripture to their own advantage. But I find it both frightening and humbling to note that, often, the way we make the distinction between those who loved Scripture and those who used Scripture is hindsight.

So maybe let’s use that phrase—“the Bible is clear”— a bit more sparingly.

Now let’s compare that to how MacArthur summed up his 2009 sermon on “Understanding the Sabbath”:

Father, we thank You for a wonderful day. We thank You for the consistency of Your truth. We thank You for the Word which opens up our understanding to all things. We’re so unendingly thrilled at the glorious truth of Scripture that comes clear and unmistakable to us. (emph. mine)

I know that MacArthur is big proponent of sola scriptura and the sufficiency of the Bible and, based on that, he believes that any and all conclusions at which he arrives must be air tight and iron clad because after all, it’s not him, it’s what scripture says, right?

But as Rachel Held Evans so aptly illustrated, lots and lots of people have depended on sola scriptura and the sufficiency of the Bible over the long centuries of Church history, and in many cases (such as the “fact” that the Bible supports everything in the heavens orbiting Earth), they were wrong. They were also doing what so many of us in the body of faith do today: use the Bible to support whatever theological, social, political, scientific, or other important ax we have to grind, and after we sharpen the ax, we use it to chop down whoever or whatever we stand in opposition against.

Coffee and BibleNo, I’m not saying that we can’t rely on the Bible, but I am saying that given a good enough reason, we can all go off half-cocked and make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. To be fair, most of us are unconscious to our own process and as such, we actually believe we are being unbiased, unprejudicial, non-bigoted, and completely objective.

More’s the pity.

It’s one thing to constantly investigate yourself and your opinions to verify and re-verify that what you believe isn’t too heavily colored by whatever filters you happen to be wearing over your eyes (and we all wear some), and it’s another thing to be so sure that you aren’t wearing any filters at all, that any of your opinions, because they’re “based on the Bible” must be the truth because “the Bible is clear” on the subject.

Usually, “the Bible is clear” when we “discover” it says something that exactly maps to some long-held belief that provides us comfort and confirms our own identity and convictions. We don’t like it when the Bible contradicts us and says something clearly that we don’t want to be true. Maybe that’s the real litmus test of Biblical interpretation, when we let what the Bible says show us what we need to believe rather than the other way around.

A Sketch of Christian Fundamentalism

How Christian Fundamentalists are seenChristian fundamentalists, who belong in the center field of Biblical theology, find themselves grouped by the media in the same category as militant political extremists, fascists, snake handlers, and Islamic fundamentalists. It’s about time somebody called foul!

The term “fundamentalism,” as Bible-believing Christians use it, identifies a system of beliefs that are foundational, or fundamental, to the Christian faith. Coined at the turn of the twentieth century, in an era of emerging, aggressive theological error, the term still stands as a watershed between truth and apostasy.

-from the pamphlet
“Fundamentally Sound: Understanding Our Faith”
Regular Baptist Press: Building Lives by the Book

(Note: I just want to point out that when you do a Google image search on “Christian fundamentalism” or “Christian fundamentalists,” the results are never pretty).

A Challies Chronicles Interlude

I’ve been trying not to mention my Pastor and my church to any extent in my blog posts to avoid even the hint that I am being critical of either, but there’s no other way to write this “meditation.” Pastor brought to my attention that I might not quite understand the term “fundamentalism” and have even been using it in a pejorative manner. He also explained some differences relative to how Reformed theology is understood.

In an effort to be fair, and to cement this in my memory, I decided to construct a little summary of “what is Christian fundamentalism.” I won’t go into the history (though I took copious notes of Pastor’s discussion), however, after a series of annual conferences held by leading Christian thinkers from America and Canada starting in 1890 and extending to 1930, the “Fundamentals of the Faith” were established, recorded, and published. The first five were fully agreed upon and the sixth was debated and later added. Here’s the list as we have it today:

  1. The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture: God authored the entire Bible — every word of it and every part of it (2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible is God’s Truth (John 17:17). It is without error!
  2. The Deity of Jesus Christ: He is fully God as well as fully man. He has always existed as God, and He always will be God (John 1:1; 20:31; 1 Tim. 3:16).
  3. Christ’s Virgin Birth and Miracles: Jesus was born of the virgin Mary (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25) and was sinless (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22). He performed miracles to authenticate His credentials as Israel’s Messiah (John 20:30, 31).
  4. Christ’s Blood Atonement for Sin: Jesus shed His blood as the payment for our sins. Without the shedding of His blood, there would be no remission of sin (Romans 3:24-26; Col. 1:13, 14; Heb. 9:14-28; Rev. 1:5).
  5. Christ’s Bodily Resurrection: Jesus arose bodily from the grave, triumphing over death and assuring believers of their future resurrection (Luke 24:1-12, 34-38; 1 Cor.15:1-20).
  6. Christ’s Personal Return: Jesus assured His disciples that He will come again (John 14:1-3). Angels announced His return (Acts 1:1), and the apostles taught that He will return (1 Thess. 4:13-17; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 3:1-10; 1 John 3:2).

This describes the core beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity and as far as I can tell, these six points are generally accepted by most if not all Christians. In fact, if you dispute any one of these points, according to a fundamentalist point of view, you can’t really be called a Christian.

It’s funny how much the topic of apostasy has come up in the Christian, Hebrew Roots, and Messianic Jewish areas of the blogosphere lately.

I don’t doubt that many of you out there will have something to say about this list. I copied it word for word from the aforementioned pamphlet, so as far as it goes, I’m just transmitting information, not engaging in editorial commentary (that comes later).

christian-fundamentals-101It all sounds so simple on the surface, but even accepting those six points, there’s still room for a huge amount of variability beneath the overall Christian “umbrella.” As I mentioned to my Pastor last Wednesday, everyone who claims Yeshua-faith as well as religious Jews who deny Yeshua (Jesus) was/is the Messiah all state that scripture supports their positions. Even when considering the rules of Biblical interpretation, there is always the filter of interpretive tradition each religious stream in Christianity and Judaism utilizes to color understanding and meaning. No one has pure, unbiased access to the Bible.

We are all on a journey attempting to discover truth, attempting to achieve ever higher fidelity to the original, that is, the truth of God, and yet we all fall short. This isn’t to say we should all give up, and it isn’t to say that we can’t come closer to truth as we continue our efforts, but achieving the mind of God is like traveling at the speed of light. To do so would require the expenditure of infinite energy and would result in us laboring under infinite mass.

In other words, no matter how hard we try, and what technologies we use, pushing an object in space faster and faster and faster will get us (marginally) closer and closer to the light speed limit, but we will not only fail to ever achieve it, we will probably fall significantly short of our target.

But that doesn’t mean we will ever stop trying, and in fact, NASA continues to look into developing warp drive.

People of faith continue to strive to break the bonds of our humanity in an effort to touch the Divine. The moral equivalent of developing “warp drive.”

My Pastor suggested that it might be helpful for me to listen to some sermons and to gain some actual experience and perspective on Christian thought and Christian leaders. We discussed John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Steven J. Cole, and Chuck Swindoll.

I didn’t tell Pastor this (but since he reads my blog posts, he’s about to find out), but I gave up listening to sermons on Christian radio well over a decade ago. Even as a “young Christian,” I found some of the sermons too elementary, some too confusing, and most too critical of Judaism and Israel to be of much help. Sooner or later, the speaker would say something that would make my blood boil, and my commute home from work would be shot as would my mood when I got home.

I listen to the 1960s “oldies” station now and am much happier on my drives.

I’m a guy sitting on a fence. I go to a Christian church, but I think like a “Messianic” (however you want to define the term). More to the point, I think and enjoy Biblical lessons that focus on understanding scripture from the Judaic thought process, linguistic, social, ethnic, and yes, Rabbinic context of the times when those scriptures were authored, and from the viewpoint of the intended Jewish (in most cases) audience.

Hillel and ShammaiKnowing the original languages isn’t enough, because how we interpret what was actually being said has been stripped of most of its contextual meaning. From a Messianic viewpoint, you can’t read the teachings of Jesus without, in some cases, summoning up Hillel and Shammai, who taught a generation before Christ. They were Jewish teachers, Jesus was a Jewish teacher. In many ways, Jesus had a lot more in common with Hillel and Shammai than he has with MacArthur, Sproul, Cole, and Swindoll. I’m not trying to be mean or insulting. It’s a statement of fact. Jesus wouldn’t call himself a “Christian.” He wouldn’t say that the Law was “nailed to the cross.” He wouldn’t disdain the Shabbat, New Moons, or other Biblical festivals.

To understand Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or James, it makes more sense to seek out sources closer to them, not only historically and linguistically, but culturally, ethnically, ethically, as well as in terms of what Jewish traditions and interpretative methods were in play in that place at that time.

I’m not sure how men like MacArthur or even the very user-friendly Chuck Swindoll would approach such a context. I don’t want to be unfair, but I do want to be realistic.

This all goes back to Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David and my recent review of who I am and what I mean within the cultural and theological context of Christianity as an institution.

So far, I see one of three outcomes of my “church experience:”

  1. I stay at church and “assimilate,” becoming a “regular Christian” and abandoning any mental, emotional, theological linkage with Messianic Judaism, Hebrew Roots, and any “Judaic” viewpoint on the Bible.
  2. I stay at church but maintain my current perspective, even expanding it though self-study and contact (real or virtual) with others who share my basic viewpoint, generally being a curiosity, a pain in the neck, or ideally, a refreshing conveyer of the Messianic perspective within the church environment.
  3. I give up on Christianity as an institution entirely, leave church, and pursue a life of faith as an independent “free-agent.”

As the end of my first year in church approaches (or has it arrived by now?), I feel like I’m crossing some sort of milestone or threshold. A year in church as resulted in me learning more about the history and institution of Christianity, but it hasn’t diminished the perspective I possessed when I went back to church a year ago. If anything, having to debate my perspective has driven me to do even more reading and studying, strengthening my belief in a Jewish Yeshua and the continuance of Jewish Torah observance for all Jews of faith, including Jews in the body of Messiah.

Every time I enter into such a brain bending set of debates and discussions, I have to get away for a while afterward and be alone with God. God may not be entirely knowable, but He isn’t confusing, either. He is a listener. He doesn’t have much to say most of the time when I pray, but it’s good to be able to tell Him how crazy religion makes me sometimes.

praying-aloneI’m glad He’s there. I’m glad I can remember that regardless of all the religious preachers and pastors and rabbis and sages rolling around human history and the current theological landscape, there is an eternal God who is the point of everything everyone is trying to do. In the end, it doesn’t matter who wins the arguments. In the end, God reigns supreme. In the end, God will stop listening and start talking. Then, if we are wise even to the slightest degree, we will stop talking and listen.

It’s in moments like these that I continue to pursue God, moments when it is dark and quiet, and the only sound is the passage of my voice to the Heavens. God listens. Being with Him is very peaceful and comforting. The chaos of human religion seems miles away.

I’ll return to my review of the Strange Fire conference soon.

In the meantime, tomorrow’s latest review of an episode of First Fruits of Zion’s television series and Wednesday’s follow up on that content continues the discussion of who I am as a believer. I said above that I was sitting on a fence. Wednesday, you will see me hopping off and I will show you on which side of the fence I land.